Editor's Note: See John Gable's take on this event here.
Over the past decade I’ve been a regular attendee at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. It’s an annual gathering that brings together thousands of like-minded and like-hearted people, and features a marvelous array of speakers: from wisdom teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle, to business executives at Ford and Twitter, to social change pioneers such as Tamara Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.
The speakers are often inspiring, but it’s the community that keeps me coming back every year. While it takes place in downtown San Francisco, it somehow manages to feel like an intimate tribe — just seeing a person on the street with a conference lanyard is enough reason to strike up a conversation.
While every year I meet interesting people and have valuable takeaways, something happened during last year's conference that was unique, something that speaks to an overall trend I think is worth paying attention to.
This past year, one of the mainstage talks was titled “Celebrating Political Diversity.” It featured a duo — Joan Blades and John Gable, who each address polarization in American politics in their own way. Joan is the co-founder of Living Room Conversations — an interactive conversational model to bring people with different views together; John, the founder of AllSides — an online news site committed to presenting news from a spectrum of political viewpoints. The talk perked my interest; living in San Francisco the word “diversity” is thrown around a lot, but I almost never hear calls for “political diversity.”
At the beginning of the talk, Joan introduced herself as a Berkeley-born activist, which received spontaneous applause from the audience to the extent that she had to pause her introduction for a few moments to let the crowd settle. John went next, prefacing that he was born in Kentucky, worked in the tech industry for many years, and concluded his introduction by saying, “Today I live in San Francisco, and believe it or not, I’m still a Republican.”
That was the moment I'll never forget — as soon as he said that last word: “Republican," dozens of people in the audience began audibly booing.
John shook it off and kept going, but it gave me reason to pause: I had seen countless conference speakers over the years, but never witnessed booing. Sure, some people make jokes that don’t land, or pause or stumble awkwardly, but to be outright booed was something else entirely.
For the rest of the evening, as I looked around at what had felt like my community, I felt less safe, even though I identify as a progressive.
That night I wondered: if there was a political poll of conference attendees, how “left” would the overall population be? 95%? 99%? 99.9%? It’s possible John was the only Republican in that 2,000-person auditorium!
This strikes me as problematic.
The conference organizers have clearly stated intentions to be non-discriminatory and bring people from all walks of life together to explore wisdom and compassion, yet, this gathering is almost completely left-wing.
When I look at the trajectory of my own life, I see a similar trend. I was born and raised in suburban Michigan—not the most diverse place in the US, but not homogenous. Michigan's overall population is almost 50/50 left/right, but when you look at a color-coded map of the state, it’s a sea of rural red with islands of blue at basically every major city (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Kalamzoo, etc). While my suburban high school had diverse political views, my bigger-city college was significantly left-leaning. After graduating college I, alongside most of my friends, left the state for bigger, more liberal cities. The few remaining friends I had who were rightwing stayed put in Michigan, and over the years we lost touch.
This lack of diversity has consequences, and one of the biggest is a prejudice towards people we don’t really know and understand. In my liberal news feed the word “Republican” is virtually always associated with something negative, so even with the noblest of intentions it’s hard not to succumb to uninformed judgement.
As I am learning to see the prejudices I unconsciously hold towards other races, genders, levels of wealth, and all the other things that make us “different,” I realize I have a blind spot around political views. Without malicious intention, this blind spot has impacted the friends I have, the city I live in, the conferences I go to, the news I listen to and the news I ignore. If spiritually-minded progressives (like myself) who attend events like Wisdom 2.0 want to bring about collective healing to our world, this is an area begging to be addressed.
Which brings me back to John and Joan. I’m grateful they are dedicating energy to helping us bridge the political divide, both in the news we read and the people we talk to. While as a society we don’t seem truly ready to “celebrate” political diversity, perhaps we can start by seeing it as having the potential of being valuable and worth exploring.
This year's Wisdom 2.0 conference is themed “The Power of Connection.” I hope it rings true to its promise.
Brandon is a mindfulness practitioner, coach, and teacher. He has facilitated mindfulness-based emotional intelligence programs to a wide variety of audiences, ranging from large investment firms in Asia, to manufacturing and technology companies in the United States, to the general public in Iceland. In a previous life he was a Senior Consultant for Oliver Wyman, a global management consulting firm. Brandon is a graduate from the University of Michigan and is an avid table tennis player who is always up for a good match. He has a Lean Left bias.